Dealing with Hemmila's death requires a family of Wildcats

Dealing with Hemmila's death requires a family of Wildcats

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Arizona lined up for the opening kickoff at Illinois ... and promptly called timeout. It was September 1995.

The Wildcats had practiced a special alignment for just this situation. Two groups of players moved on to the field, gathering at each 40-yard line.

The first group took a knee in unison, forming the letter "D" and raising their helmets with one arm toward the heavens. The second group did the same, except those players formed the letter "T."

Defensive back Shawn Parnell stood alone, holding up his best friend's No. 80 jersey.

Head coach Dick Tomey didn't see the tribute.

He was in Los Angeles, attending the funeral of senior tight end Damon Terrell.

"We wanted to let the Terrell family know that he would be with us now and forever," defensive end Tedy Bruschi told me after the game when I was at the Arizona Daily Star. "A lot of guys on the team were like brothers with Damon."

It is the saddest thing a college coach, administrator, teammate can endure -- the loss of someone so young, so filled with the future, so seemingly healthy one minute and then ... gone. It is this battle with grief, with anger, with wrestling to somehow understand it all, that the 2016 Wildcats must work through after being delivered the horrible news on Monday morning:

Senior offensive lineman Zach Hemmila died overnight in his sleep, according to coach Rich Rodriguez and athletic director Greg Byrne. Rodriguez told the team after its Monday morning practice.

There were no immediate details about Hemmila's death. He had been practicing and was apparently healthy, happy. But the details right now don't matter. Just like they didn't matter on that Saturday afternoon in September 1995, when the Wildcats were in Champaign, Ill., wanting to just honor their teammate who had died a week earlier.

During the game, Parnell repeatedly yelled to his teammates, "Do you feel him? Do you feel him?"

Thing is, they still do.

"I don't even know any advice I can give," said 1995 senior safety Brandon Sanders, the current head football coach and athletic director at Pueblo High School.

"We're still dealing with it even to this day. It's been 20-plus years and it still hits us guys on that team. It's devastating to a team, a coach, parents. ...

"It's going to resonate all season with this team. For us, it resonated all the way to Senior Day, when they're bringing out his jersey. All you can do is lean on each other. The kids need to lean on the coaches, and vice versa, to where you really feel like it is a family."

Those 1995 Wildcats wore patches on their uniforms and "80" decals on the backs of their helmets as small ways to preserve Terrell's memory. At a two-hour memorial service at McKale Center, they shared stories and vowed to be inspired to tell their teammates how much they cared about each other.

"Like the counselors told us the other day," Tomey said at that memorial service, "we need to take something that Damon was and use that to make us better."

And so it will be with Hemmila.

The players, the coaches, the staff will all have to grieve in their own way. Campus counselors are available. There might not be a "right way" or "wrong way" to do this ... other than to just be there for each other.

"It's got to be an internal thing. You have to refocus everything, within yourself and within the brotherhood of being a Wildcat," Sanders said. "I can't tell Coach Rod and those guys what to do, but the one thing is just be together.

"We did so a little bit to grind out our season. What we didn't have was time because we were into our season. You want to honor your teammate, but there aren't enough things you can do to honor him. And the game ... you realize it's just a game.

"You still have a passion to win, but you lose a little bit of that concentration and the edginess that you need to have."

Terrell, in 1995, collapsed during a conditioning run a day after reporting to camp, underwent surgery for a ruptured spleen and remained hospitalized with complications. He died Sept. 7 when "air entered the opening created by the removal of a dialysis catheter at UMC," according to a 1996 story in the Tucson Citizen.

It's the worst day an athletic department can have. One such day is too many. Arizona has had six in the past 21 years, starting with Terrell.

In 1997, softball player Julie Reitan died in her sleep because of hypoglycemia, a complication of her Type I diabetes.

In 2000, baseball player Kelsey Osburn died six days after being hit in the head by a batted ball while running the bases during batting practice in a summer league.

In 2004, incoming freshman defensive end McCollins Umeh, the centerpiece of Mike Stoops' first recruiting class, collapsed during a voluntary summer workout and died later that day. It was later determined he had an enlarged heart.

In 2005, women's All-Pac-10 basketball player Shawntinice Polk died because of a pulmonary blood clot.

Back in 1995, Arizona lost that day at Illinois, 9-7, committing five turnovers, including a fumble that was returned for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats finished the season 6-5, going 4-5 after Terrell's death. Sanders, with the benefit of age and hindsight, understands how tricky the emotions of those games were, even as the players tried to carry Terrell's spirit with them.

It's impossible to say how the emotions of Hemmila's death will affect this season, these players -- not only now but as they move through life. For sure, the 2016 Wildcats will find ways to honor Hemmila, to remember him now and #Forever65. They will feel him.

But this is a tough, tough deal.

Perhaps the only thing to do is lean in, lean on. Be together.